How do you offer quality meals to tens of thousands every day, when those meals will be eaten hours later, after being re-heated and served at altitudes that numb the tastebuds so the richest foods taste like oatmeal?
Can you produce meals, in hundreds of varieties, addressing special dietary needs, and the food preparation requirements of the world’s religions, in time for hundreds of flights scheduled to depart day after day.
How do you ensure consistency, quality, variety and food safety?
These are the challenges facing the world’s airline catering firms. We found answers when we joined a select group of journalists for a guided tour of SATS’ kitchens at Singapore Changi Airport.
SATS got its start as Singapore Airlines’ in-house catering service, before being privatized and grown into the publicly traded company that supplies 60 of the world’s airlines including: All Nippon Airways, British Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways, Etihad Airways, Qantas Airways, Thai Airways and, of course, Singapore Airlines.
To manage demand for nearly 100,000 airline meals a day, the two SATS catering centers employ the same standardized manufacturing processes and inventory control systems as are used by the aircraft manufacturers which make the planes on which SATS meals are served.
Of course, there are additional complications in food preparation for SATS to contend with: handling perishables, ensuring food safety, maintaining high standards for consistent meal preparation, avoiding food waste, and accommodating short lead times, just to name a few.
Chefs Under Pressure
But before all that, SATS’ chefs need to be sure that the product delivered to passengers will satisfy their needs. Preparing airline food that looks appetizing and tastes good requires getting creative with ingredients.
Executive chefs and executive sous chefs develop recipes in their laboratory kitchens, then test the results in a simulated aircraft cabin, which generates cabin pressure equivalent to the operating pressure inside an aircraft flying at 30,000 feet. Once they’ve been inside the pressurized cabin long enough for their palates to be affected, chefs trial their new creations and discuss changes required to get the flavor just right.
Chefs can spend hours in a room that feels more like a submarine than a conference room, sampling and adjusting until they get the recipe where they want it.
Dishes Made To Measure
Once they perfect the recipes, they draw up specific standards for preparation and presentation for the kitchens to follow. No detail is too small.
The measurements of meat cuts, the exact amount of rice and vegetable accompaniments, the amount of sauce, and the number of peas, each is counted and weighed.
In the industrial kitchens, conveyor belts carry huge trays of main dishes and sides to a specialized cooling unit, which brings food to safe temperatures for the last elements of assembly, first into dishes and then into trays and then finally into the endless rows of galley carts on which they’ll reside until flight attendants are ready to warm them up and bring them to our seats.
They order ingredients in bulk from all around the world, and these ingredients are stored in specialized automated warehouses until work-orders call up a demand for warehouse robots to transfer them to distribution.
While order processing is controlled through sophisticated enterprise resource management programs, oversight by quality control is constant, and kitchen staff work to the clearly defined parameters of each recipe’s work-kit.
At assembly, a master sample dish is prepared against which all other dishes are measured. The experienced workers don’t need much guidance. We saw one line worker return three slices of carrots to the tray because she knew without weighing them that there were three too many for the dish she prepared.
Nevertheless floor supervisors keep a watchful eye and are available to address any problems that could delay the next stage of completion.
Making a Meal of the Numbers
The facility statistics supplied by STATS paint a picture of the magnitude of this delicate operation.
SATS Inflight Catering Centre 1: 64,000 square meters (nearly 690,000 squqre feet)
SATS Inflight Catering Centre 2: 40,000 square meters (over 430,000 square feet)
Meal Preparation Capacity
SATS Inflight Catering Center 1: 60,000 meals
SATS Inflight Catering Center 2: 35,000 meals
Combined: 2,100 workers including two executive chefs, and 21 executive sous chefs.
Number of Kitchens
Combined: 19 separate kitchens including cold, pastry, Oriental, Dim Sum, Indian, Japanese, Muslim, Premium, Thai, and Western
SATS has plenty of pressure to contend with–outside the SAC room. While it’s a well-functioning and organized facility it competes with airline catering behemoths like Lufthansa’s LSG Sky Chefs division, and Gategroup’s Gategourmet. SATS has a home advantage in Singapore, but for flights originating in other countries–many of the company’s largest customer’s flights do–it must coordinate with competitors’ facilities to ensure food quality is consistent, both the outbound and inbound. This requires facility audits by SATS’s Executive Chefs and quality control teams. It also means sharing recipe secrets with competitors–something a proud cook in any other sector would go to lengths to avoid. Global catering requires a different mindset and demands that SATS maintains these high production standards to stay in business.
SATS faces another critical challenge in food preparation–getting the ingredients it needs for a varied menu. Home production of foodstuffs is not one of Singapore’s strengths. Because of the country’s limited size, there is little room to grow crops or for animal husbandry. Nearly all ingredients, therefore, are sourced overseas with orders for ingredients placed well in advance of demand, then shipped in bulk by suppliers. A delivery failure of a key ingredient can halt the works, so SATS’s purchasing team must multi-source while ensuring that the quality of ingredients remains unchanged. Where other airline-managed caterers might resort to COMAT (Company Material) cargo shipments to resolve logistical snafus, Singapore Airlines is divested from SATS. This means any air shipments of last-minute requirements must be shipped to SATS as paid airfreight. It’s a significant added cost which SATS buyers work hard to avoid.
Even so, SATS, is a profitable business. By capitalizing on its logistical and operational strengths, and diversifying its services, the business is growign. Besides airline meals, SATS provides supplemental in-flight service items and gate services.
In addition to its Singapore headquarters, SATS maintains satellite facilities in 42 airports in 11 countries in Asia and the Middle East. SATS has also capitalized on the popularity of its catering services outside of aviation to make headway beyond Singapore recently introducing general catering services in Australia.
Its two divisions: SATS Food Solutions and SATS Gateway services had combined revenues of S$1.79 billion ($1.33 billion) and profits of S$180.4 million ($130 million) during the most recent 2013/14 financial year.